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The Great Inequality Debate
How Much Class Resentment Is There in America?

Over at the Brookings Institution, Richard Reeves and Nathan Joo summarize some fascinating recent academic research on Americans’ preferences about the ideal level of social mobility—that is, the percentage of people born in the bottom quintile who should move upward, and the percentage of people born in the top quintile who should move downward. The takeaway: Americans want a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter:

Americans across the ideological spectrum want to see people born at the bottom to rise up the income ladder to a much greater extent than they do.

… But when asked about ideal rates of downward mobility from the top quintile, a very different answer emerges. Americans are against people being stuck in poverty, but are much less worried about the persistence of relative affluence. In fact, the ideal rate of stickiness at the top closely mirrors the real data.

These results, which held for liberals and conservatives alike, would be untenable if actually put into practice. As Reeves and Joo note, mobility across quintiles is a “zero-sum game”; it’s impossible for the poor to get rich and the rich to stay rich without blocking mobility for the middle. Still, the findings might not be surprising given America’s history. The authors of the original study note that “the idea of upward social mobility is part of the American ethos,” and any comparable emphasis on downward social mobility has been “notably absent.”

While perhaps consistent with the American ethos, the results of this study are at least somewhat in tension with the prevailing wisdom about the country’s current mood. Many pundits have interpreted the rise of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders as evidence that Americans are deeply resentful of elites and elite institutions. This is probably mostly correct. But this study—if accurate—might suggest that Americans’ anti-elite sentiment isn’t quite as vindictive or all-encompassing as some analyses suggest. Americans want more upward mobility for the poor, but they don’t want it to come at the expense of the upper middle class. Americans want their elites to do a better job, but maybe they aren’t quite ready to throw them out just yet.

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  • Kevin

    I strongly suspect that, even when the paradoxes of rising and falling quintiles, et al. are explained, Americans want to see strong economic growth which opens up opportunities for those at the bottom to move up both relatively (for some large minority) and absolutely (for the vast majority) while those nearer the top maintain their absolute levels of wealth (for the most part) even if quite a few see a drop in their relative degree of affluence.

    “A rising tide lifts all boats” captures this mindset. The lack of such a tide recently is causing quite a bit of angst.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Indeed, but when both FDR and Trump benefit from a similar sentiment then we must gather that something is profoundly misunderstood by one set of those followers or the other. What’s new is that a modern-day politician with all the prescriptions to cause his followers to sustain bigger life losses than they already have is the one now benefiting on the GOP side. This means that a large number of people are mad enough to basically jump off a cliff and pull their children off with them.

      • CosmotKat

        You make this about the GOP and yet the resentment of the rich is entirely a Democrat party phenomenon. You make a two-faced political argument with no facts to back up your statement and then a subtle smear. Standard stuff from you goat.

        • FriendlyGoat

          There is nothing two-faced about pointing out that when a mad sentiment among voters is said to have benefited both Franklin Roosevelt and Donald Trump that one set of supporters is in loony-land. I believe that set is the Trump supporters. They are mad but have NO IDEA what has happened to them or why they should not voluntarily vote to have their own A$$ES kicked yet again.

          • CosmotKat

            Your response proves my point.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You don’t have a point.

          • CosmotKat

            In your opinion, but not to the intellectually honest who would find your comments a condescending two-faced political argument.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Not liking the posts of the goat is not “a point”. Answering a post with anger and no real counter-argument is not “a point”.

          • CosmotKat

            Perhaps you ought to take your own advice. I provided a counter to your smear disguised as a two-faced political argument. Point out the anger, because I sure don’t see it, but spare me your self-righteous indignation.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Call me dense (you will anyway), but I don’t know what the “counter” is other than you saying I’m making a two-faced argument and a smear.. The argument I am making is the one I’m always making—-that high-end tax cuts do not create jobs. Donald Trump has people believing he is going to get them more and better jobs—–with high-end tax cuts.
            I just don’t believe it and, as a result, I think his supporters are in loony-land—-not having a clue what they’re doing.

          • CosmotKat

            “They are mad but have NO IDEA what has happened to them or why they should not voluntarily vote to have their own A$$ES kicked yet again.”

            I see no mention of high end tax cuts in this statement nor any other comments that I have responded to. All I see is condescension and a smear. Wasn’t this an article about resentment of the rich? I wrote:
            “You make this about the GOP and yet the resentment of the rich is entirely a Democrat party phenomenon.”
            Try again. for the record I don’t find you dense, just snarky.

          • FriendlyGoat

            People who are following Donald Trump to “Make America Great Again” are largely people who sense that family-supporting jobs have been slipping away for 35 years. They are very frustrated and I do not blame them. The problem is that successive rounds of tax cuts have helped to cause the job crisis and Donald proposes to give more tax cuts and make matters worse. The supporters are clueless to what they are supporting. That’s not snark. It’s just a sad fact.

          • CosmotKat

            ” The problem is that successive rounds of tax cuts have helped to cause the job crisis”

            That may be your opinion, but where is the evidence to back up that statement? Tax cuts may or may not stimulate job growth as some claim, but I could find no evidence that tax cuts played a major or minor role in weak job creation.
            Tax cuts as monetary policy is an acceptable short term solution, but without corresponding reductions in spending it will not drive economic growth in the long term. Just as stimulus (Keynesian government deficit spending) may offer short term demand creation demand for labor, but has a negative effect on economic growth in the longer term. Real economic growth hides bad policy.

            “The supporters are clueless to what they are supporting.”
            In your opinion.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The “proof” is that we have had the very significant high-end tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 in effect for many years DURING WHICH many, many working-class people—especially older ones now supporting Trump—-have seen their career prospects fall through the floor.
            If tax cuts actually worked, we would not have to make America great “again”. It would have already been great these past dozen years.

            Most people on YOUR side know something is wrong and they have known it for a long time. You guys think it is Obama or immigrants.
            I say it is tax cuts.

          • CosmotKat

            That may be your opinion, but empirical data does not support your premise and/or conclusions. You cannot slough off the weak economic growth under the Obama administration by blaming Bush tax cuts. Your argument is unsound and ignorant.

          • FriendlyGoat

            “Empirical data” did not support or predict the recent drop in oil prices either with the attendant financial crisis which may be unfolding before our eyes right now. Economics have a way of making monkeys out of majorities all at once. The mere fact that so many people have advocated tax cuts for so long is one of the best reasons for believing they work in reverse.

          • CosmotKat

            Actually it did. Your conclusions continue to be erroneous and without merit since you are expressing opinion that is not backed by corresponding facts.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Sure. Everybody predicted $30 oil as they raced to form drilling companies predicated entirely on much higher prices. C’mon, Cosmo.

          • CosmotKat

            Those who understand the fundamental notion of supply and demand predicted the drop in oil prices and the reasons behind it. That’s not hard to see or to predict however, I have generally find progressives are poorly schooled in these fundamentals since you spend the vast amount of your fantasy ideology obsessing over social justice issues that the majority of Americans do not. That’s why social issues always rank last in issues Americans care about.
            Empirical evidence is what leads to predictions. However evidence is but one facet of the prediction business and political environment is another which is where we get policy. In this case policy has hindered economic growth and without growth to hide bad policy you get a stagnant economic environment like we have today.
            Put differently, the prevailing vision, such as your commentary on taxes, not only does not require evidence to satisfy your vision, it becomes a substitute for evidence in condemning alternate views, so that real criterion is not which theory better fits empirical facts but which theory better fits your prevailing vision.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Sure. Everybody predicted $30 oil (or $20) as they raced to form drilling companies predicated entirely on much higher prices—-companies and loans now collapsing. C’mon, Cosmo. If lenders had “facts” about these price trends they would not have lent to marginal oil operations.

            There is a reason I repeated that. Most of the market has been surprised. That’s why it is convulsing. You can believe whatever you want.

          • CosmotKat

            You have demonstrated an astonishing lack of basic knowledge and have no idea of what you speak.

      • Jim__L

        Not really. Life is complicated enough that you can have widely varying approaches to the same problem.

        Also, you could say of Big-National-Debt Democrats that they are mad enough to stand at the top of a cliff and shove their children (or better yet, someone else’s children) off of that cliff.

        • FriendlyGoat

          You realize that your first sentence acknowledges your permission for the approaches of Bernie Sanders, right?

          The thing about the spending of Democrats is that the largest part of of it has resulted in putting money in hands of people which creates demand which creates jobs. Trump supporters seem not to understand that taking that away and instead putting more money into speculation pools is not going to get them the jobs they are expecting.
          That’s why I say they are jumping off a cliff to support Trump (or any Republican).

          • Jim__L

            The problem with the “giveaway spending creates demand” argument is that real economic spending is a two-sided transaction — the spender stimulates the economy by spending the money, and the receiver enlarges the economy by making products and services equal to the value of the money being spent.

            Government giveaways, on the other hand, are only half as useful — they do not call for any services or products to be produced by the receiver of the money. Given that the most meaningful measure of the economy is how many useful goods and services are being produced (rather than how much money is changing hands), you can argue that government giveaways are **less than half** as useful as two-sided economic transactions.

            To be specific — it’s more useful to the economy as a whole to have one of those cashiers
            providing their services for a year in exchange for that $25k, rather
            than simply sitting back and collecting it from various government
            subsidies. Another example of a two-sided transaction is defense spending — which results in tangible products or (if foreign policy is done correctly) real security gains. If Washington could concentrate on getting foreign policy right and leaving economic activity up to the rest of the country, that would be most useful.

            I’ll say right now that I agree with you if you say that speculation can simply result in money flowing around instead of any real products or services being added to the economy. On the other hand, from my perspective in Silicon Valley, a lot of the “speculation” money ends up paying for laptops, office chairs, paychecks, etc, that are used by people who are working very hard on products and services that may or may not pan out. That’s the risk if you’re trying to create new tech, sometimes the market isn’t there.

            Another big line-item here that we probably agree on is how exorbitant Silicon Valley rent is. Landlords really don’t provide value for that money, and the fact that banks walk off with a huge chunk of that by encouraging high degrees of leverage in the housing market is a racket, plain and simple.

            Again, it’s hard to say what government can do about this that’s constructive. Reducing loan subsidies and guarantees that it really can’t afford to cover when things go bad, making the markets more conservative and preventing a lot of froth? That would help. I’m almost inclined to go out on a limb and say that porkbarreling — the practice of distributing government contract money a bit more evenly across the various districts of the country — probably helps as much as anything to keep rents down, by encouraging companies not to cluster in one place and drive prices up so high.

            Tough to say.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Speculation money spent in startups or even attempted startups that don’t pan out is money creating jobs—-at the startup or to the suppliers of the startup for everything needed to start up. Speculation money invested in publicly-traded stocks, bonds, currencies, collectibles, real estate partnerships and derivatives usually is not. Usually this is just “wealth management” seeking a short or long term gain on a trade. These latter forms of investment are where much of income at the high end goes. You can tax it lower and still not create any jobs. You can tax business income lower and even increase the incentive for jobs to be eliminated because in a lower-tax environment the owners can keep a greater share of the savings from eliminating jobs.

            SNAP (food stamps) on the other hand is spent by recipients and creates demand for the food products. SNAP is often criticized as an unnecessary giveaway. The people who eat don’t think so and the people who sell food they otherwise would not sell don’t think so. In my view, the important Congressional support for SNAP probably comes more from the producers than the eaters. The business community really loves government spending of all kinds because it knows a purchase order when it sees one. This same effect is flowing through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ACA, EITC, questionable weapons programs, any public infrastructure, even grants to the arts, PBS—-and—-the salary paid for every “unnecessary” government job ever created.

            Leaving more money in the hands of a trader like George Soros just does not produce the same level of positive effect.

          • Boritz

            “putting money in the hands of people”

            By first putting hands in the pockets of people. That’s what Trump supporters understand.

    • vb

      I think the status may be more important than the wealth. If you can’t buy your kids the latest cell phone, sneakers, and Hello Kitty rooms, they are not cool in school. If you make braised cabbage instead of arugala salads for dinner, you are not cool. Can you be proud if your kid graduates cum laude from a state U when the cool people send their kids to an Ivy? Thhings have become more important than values to too many people, and it is hardest for the poor and less educated to stand up to this.

      • Jim__L

        The deep irony of all this is that Socialism originally meant the abolition of distinctions based on class-status markers. I mean, how else do you reconcile Soviet Socialism (e.g., Josef Stalin), National Socialism (e.g., Adolf Hitler), and Anarcho-Socialism (e.g., George Orwell)? Redistributing money isn’t the answer, not least because it simply didn’t work (and still doesn’t).

        The American experience proves that reducing and nearly eliminating the relevance of class hierarchies is actually possible… de Tocqueville is its best chronicler of this on the Frontier and in early America. There are modern situations (ironically, even situations with dramatic hierarchical structures!) that can do the same.

        Conscript armies where officers can rise from the ranks, are one. World War II brought together Americans from highly discrepant backgrounds, then helped to reduce or eliminate divisive class distinctions through unified agonies in the face of adversity, recognition of everyone’s efforts, and through the introduction of a hierarchical system that provided an alternative to the hierarchical system(s) outside of the military.

        One problem with one-dimensional rankings of Americans (e.g., by economic quintile) is they reinforce the very problems well-intentioned researchers often seek to overcome. What you need is for a satisfied culture to have the sense that individuals are not some rung on a ladder, or a link on some medieval Great Chain of Being, but part of a network that gives honor and status in many dimensions at myriad scales.

        This is why the nearly-lost principles of subsidiarity and even joinerism in our “Washington must be prime in everything” and “only money matters” country are so important. Maybe you work as a cashier at a local supermarket, but your talent on the guitar means that most of the people at your church (and others) have your Christmas album. Maybe you never had the opportunity to be a tenured researcher at a big-name university, but the free astronomy presentations you offered monthly inspired wonder and appreciation for science in thousands of attendees over the course your career.

        I’m pretty sure everyone here can think of people they admire that are not conventionally “rich”. This country needs more of that kind of admiration, more opportunities for that kind of admiration. That would render this problem moot. Just being a mother or a father (and a wife or a husband) fulfills these needs in a way that government or any amount of redistributed money never can.

        If you want to investigate human nature, it can often be instructive to look at multiplayer gaming. Games with exactly one leaderboard are often short-lived — if you’re not on the leaderboard, all but a few players get the sense they’re losing, and drop out. Games with leaderboards for multiple metrics tend to be much more durable, broad-based, and satisfying. Games that limit your leaderboard to a subset of all players — your friends list — also provide more opportunities for meaningful satisfaction.

        Silicon Valley’s biggest missed opportunity might be in this very regard. Old-school computer geeks know what it is to not be cool according to the standards of many of the rest of their peers, but gain a great deal of satisfaction from (often near-obsessively) practicing their art, and being appreciated for those achievements. Finding a corner of the world you can be satisfied with is immensely important. The fact that currently-influential people with this sort of perspective are losing this insight because they’re winning the money game in absolute terms (and so often ignoring everything but the money game) is tragic. It’s only going to get worse, really… money-gamers are now moving into the industry, bringing their closed-mindedness with them.

        Well, congratulations on getting to the bottom of this comment. This is something I feel very strongly about, thank you for reading.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Outstanding…I wish that I could have said it this well.

        • vb

          We should also remember that we will never know which small things we did will have an effect on someone’s life. Remember the librarian who recommended a book on rocks or geology to Ben Carson. He became fascinated and then became the go-to guy for identifying rocks for his friends. This probably strengthened his belief that he could do and learn things important for his life, yet the librarian probably never realized this. It is all these little things that come from good people that enrich our lives, not the gold faucets in our bathroom or our designer pocketbooks. Swapping recipes with the person at the meat counter, giving your neighbor some herbs you started from seed, these are the things that make our lives meaningful.
          I was lucky enough to attend a small Catholic school. My class of about 50 had mostly known one another from first grade. When there was a class project, everybody had to contribute and all contributions were important. We learned that we needed one another. Sure, my life would have been different had I attended Sidwell Friends, but I can’t imagine how it could have been better.

        • FriendlyGoat

          I don’t guess it ever occurs to you that stiff high-end taxation is one of the only real dampers to put on the “money-gamers” you know have ruined so many things.

      • Andrew Allison

        The trouble is that there’s virtually no conversation about status. Class in the US is defined by income. Even more troubling is that fact that income-based class is being grossly misrepresented: the reality is that, measured by relationship to the median, the lower (income) class has declined significantly at the expense of the high end of the middle income group.

  • rheddles

    You are confusing attitudes regarding the wealth of elites with those regarding their power.

  • qet

    It all comes down to a belief that there can arise again a general prosperity whose value can and will be naturally allocated in bulk to the lower quintiles, so that the relative gap with the upper quintiles closes but without the upper quintiles actually losing anything. This is unlikely for two reasons: logically, because sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander–the significance of the gap is not understood in real material terms (most of the bottom quintile have a higher material standard of living than did some of the upper quintiles not all that long ago) but in relative terms, meaning that assuming that preservation of the absolute income/wealth of the upper quintiles will not make them feel poorer by comparison is unlikely, thus the goal of not generating downward mobility can’t be met; materially, because income and wealth have always been tied to production, and technology has now developed to the point where more than sufficient production for human consumption can be accomplished with fewer and fewer humans as part of the process, so there simply are not going to be sufficient “good” jobs for those in the bottom quintiles to move upward in meaningful numbers.

    • Jim__L

      I was with you all the way up to the idea that “fewer and fewer humans [must be] part of the process”.

      As you point out, “most of the bottom quintile have a higher material standard of living than did some of the upper quintiles not all that long ago.” Not only that, the upper quintiles now are living better because of technologies unimaginable in the past. This points to the idea that consumption (of various, new kinds) can probably keep expanding indefinitely, meaning more and more processes as any given process requires fewer and fewer humans.

      What we’re hitting here is an imbalance between creation and destruction, thanks to the Cult of Disruption. Instead of looking to new technologies to bring long-held dreams to reality and enable never-imagined benefits, investors are looking for ways to do stuff we already know for really cheap.

      There’s certainly a place for this in a best-possible economy — falling costs are a huge benefit, and freeing up labor can be as well — but when people whose future plans affect many others start to fall into thought traps like “long-term structural unemployment” it’s being taken too far.

  • GS

    According to the “American Dream”, everyone should be able to move to where his/her abilities and effort – or the lack thereof – would take him [or her]. The rarely acknowledged truth is that both the abilities and the effort have their own Bell Curves. It is known that the abilities, or at least the IQ part of them, are substantially heritable [something like to the extent of 70% or even higher]. Something similar, to an unknown extent, applies to effort – the work ethic is inculcated, mostly in the families. Therefore the mobility would happen in the non-inherited part – were the heritabilities 100%, we would end up with the castes.

  • Anthony

    I don’t think study or Reeves and Joo article is highlighting elites or resentment thereto. In particular, our (American) sense of what constitutes more or economic mobility (higher standard of living, better health, greater sense of security, etc.) may be relative despite study’s quintile survey of idealized conditions. While recognizing that “a core tenet of the American ethos is that there is considerable economic mobility”, Americans when considering how well off they are when realistically asked may just utilize some other reference point – a benchmark: their own or their family’s past experience and just maybe how they see people around them living. These perceptions more than elite and institutional resentments may illuminate responses and give a better measure of Americans’ idea of economic mobility.

    Further, attitudes toward downward mobility as reported from survey ought not be surprising; people respond differently to hopes of having more than to fears of having less (downward mobility) – not sinking in the world: losses loom larger than gains. Essentially, a key takeaway from study may be that legitimate mobility (either economic or social or both) is very threatening because it means the possibility of movement either up or (most importantly for many) down. For this reason, perhaps a question worth asking is can economic growth help to assuage the tension created by American idea of mobility?

  • jeburke

    This is a silly “study” the results of which were 100% predictable. To be sure, most doctors, lawyers, business executives and professors want to see their children become successful. And mostly, they do. Big surprise. Far more important to “the American Dream,” we like to see impoverished Americans and new immigrants move up as a vibrant growing economy expands, bestowing opportunities on all willing to take advantage of them.

    • Jim__L

      It is possible for people to want to see the rich brought low. It’s not a generous sentiment, and it’s a good thing that Americans typically don’t share it.

      • CosmotKat

        Resentment of the rich runs rampant in the democratic party where the grievance groups are agitated by the success of others and their penthouse Bolsheviks feed their resentment with hate while protecting their own.

  • Andrew Allison

    As the comments illustrate, there is enormous confusion about class. The thrust of the post is, in fact, about the resentment (if any) about income distribution, which is something completely different from class. On the subject of income distribution, previously posted a link to a chart which clearly demonstrates that, contrary to the nonsense currently being promulgated, the middle income group (which by any reasonable definition means some spread around the median) has grown dramatically rather than shrunk. Simply put, for those other than the 1%, the income curve has flattened. The fact is that social mobility has very little to do with income.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Politicians would love to promise the voters that everyone can be above average. Maybe this is why so few statisticians become successful politicians.

    Seriously, this is a pointless game. Economic status across a population is going to be distributed across a more-or-less normal curve. Only the range, the mean, and the extent of non-normal skewing are in question. The really important question we should be asking is this: How can we help those on the lower and more miserable end of the curve to help themselves so that their lives become less miserable? There are actually things that could be done. For example, instead of snob zoning that serves mainly to make housing less affordable, we could make our municipal land use regulations more friendly toward the remodeling of single family homes and vacant commercial buildings into multi-family residences, we could make it easy for people to add accessory apartments to their homes, we could make infill development easier (especially with “tiny homes”), and we could make it easier for people to carry on a small trade or freelance business out of their homes. There are many other things that could be done, and in many cases these would require very little government expenditure or transfer of wealth from rich to poor. Too bad that there is no one in either major party or among the commentariat that are talking about any of this.

    • CosmotKat

      Two words…….regulations and corruption. That’s what gets in the way of all those ideas.

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